Vancouver Island is a magical, forested, natural beauty off the coast of British Columbia. From mountains to beaches, this sizable island has it all. There’s so much to see here that it will be hard to fit it into a five-day Vancouver Island road trip, but let’s try!
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What you need to know about a Vancouver Island Road Trip
Vancouver Island, and much of coastal British Columbia, is known for its temperate climate. But, also for its wacky weather. It rains a lot here, and the humidity is unreal. When you go out for a hike, make sure you have good tread for the slick or mucky conditions. A light rain jacket is a good idea too.
The roads are reasonably well-kept on the island, but once you start venturing further out, the more rugged the roads become. Make sure your car can handle the road conditions. Also, make sure to keep your gas tank relatively full. Some of the stops are further than you’d expect. (The island is larger than the country of Belgium, after all.) But, cell signal isn’t great once you leave Port Alberni, so you won’t be able to call out if you run out of gas.
How to get to Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island is, wait for it, an island! *gasp* So you’ll have to find some way of getting there. There are three options.
The best option is to rent a car and take one of the many ferries that cross over to the island. It’s the easiest way to have everything you need with you before setting off for the island, and you don’t have to worry about other transportation.
The second option would be to be a foot passenger on the ferry then rent a car once you arrive on the island. Sure, you’ll save yourself the $60 for the ferry fee, but the ferry terminals aren’t close to the towns, so you’ll have to arrange transportation to and from, which adds on to your costs.
The third option is to fly. There are airports (both on land or in the harbour) that you could travel to then rent a car once you land. It’s not a particularly economical option, but an option none-the-less.
Taking the ferry
I quite enjoyed the ferry ride across the Georgia Strait. It was a calm and scenic journey. The boat was quite large (and fit so many cars!). It had a restaurant, a gift shop, a business lounge and a kids play area.
BC Ferries says its busiest times are on holiday weekends, with peak volumes on Thursday and Friday afternoons, Saturday mornings and Monday afternoons. They highly suggest that mid-week, mid-morning sailing times would be best for a less crowded travel experience.
For most travel crossings, you want to be there at least 30 minutes before your boarding time. I suggest at least one hour before for busy summer travel times. But check the BC Ferries website for up-to-date, accurate information.
For those who may have never boarded a ferry before, it can be an intimidating process. Once you check in to the terminal, you will be told to sit and wait in a lane until boarding. You can leave your car, but someone (a driver) must be with the vehicle at all times. Be careful of traffic in other lanes, and, for everyone’s sanity, make sure you’re back in your car before boarding so you don’t hold up everyone behind you.
Then as you drive up onto the boat, attendants will point you to where you park inside the belly of the ship. Follow the signs on board for how close to park to the person in front of you. Then turn off your car, head up the stairwell (noting where you parked) and enjoy the ride!
How to get around on Vancouver Island
There are a couple of ways to get around on Vancouver Island, but the most efficient will be your own car. This will allow you the freedom of your own itinerary, rather than waiting for public transportation. This Vancouver Island road trip is for people with vehicles since there are a couple of stops you’ll want to make in the interior of the island too!
But, there are other options. Just do your research and make reservations as much as possible.
Bus – The Vancouver Island Connector is a transit system that connects the towns all over the city. They have a couple of regular stops, like Victoria, Nanaimo and Tofino, but you can make reservations to stop at one of their many locations. Tickets aren’t super cheap, but depending on how long you are here, it might be the more economical option.
Seaplane – If you’d rather spend your time travelling in the air, then seaplane travel is for you. Unfortunately, there are no direct routes. For example, you could fly from Vancouver harbour to Nanaimo, then back to Vancouver to head to Tofino, then back again in order to fly to Victoria. Obviously, the weather will have a big part to play in landing on the water, that’s why many of their routes are seasonal. But it’s quite the experience!
Water taxi – In Victoria, you can hop onto the water taxis to effortlessly take you from one part of the harbour to the other. It’ll save you some walking time.
Vancouver Island Road Trip 5 day itinerary
On this Vancouver Island Road Trip, you’ll taste the Nanaimo Bar Trail, marvel at giant trees, beach comb at a National Park, hike in a rainforest, go surfing in Tofino, see the capital city and spot whales in the wild. Sound like fun? Let’s go!
Day one of a Vancouver Island Road Trip is all about getting to the islands and seeing your first sights. While it will only take half a day to get from the mainland all the way to the west coast of Vancouver Island, you’ll want to take your time to enjoy the stops along the way, like tasting delicious treats in Nanaimo and marvelling the giants at Cathedral Grove.
Ferry to Island
The first stop you’ll want to enjoy is the 1.5-hour crossing from Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay. I loved the smooth ride staring out the windows on the ship lookout out over the blue channel and seeing all the islands dotting the horizon. This crossing made me appreciate how wild much of British Columbia really is.
Explore Nanaimo Bar Trail
When you arrive on Vancouver Island at Departure Bay, you’ll want to make the detour to Nanaimo, rather than heading straight to the western coast. Not only do they have an interesting downtown, but the town also boasts a Nanaimo Bar Trail.
You cannot leave Nanaimo without eating a Nanaimo bar. The coconut custard chocolate dessert bar’s history is a bit mysterious. No one really knows where the origins of the dessert came from, but the first time it was mentioned was in the 1950s in Edith Adam’s Cookbook and published in the Vancouver Sun.
Tourism Nanaimo has a 34-stop Nanaimo bar trail. From the traditional Nanaimo bar to a Nanaimo bar cinnamon bun to a Nanaimo bar pedicure – there is everything related to this delicious dessert.
Other things you should check out in Nanaimo include the Old City Quarter (with its colourful buildings), the Bastion and the 12 o’clock gun.
After you’ve had a grand old time checking out what Nanaimo has to offer, it’s time to hit the road toward Tofino.
Stop and marvel at Cathedral Grove
Your first and most important stop along the way should be at the Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park. Located along Highway 4, you can’t miss the small parking lots located on either side of the road.
Once you stop, you’re greeted with giant Douglas Firs that reach up to the sky. Some of the trees here are over 800 years old. The largest tree stands 76 metres, which is 20 metres taller than the leaning tower of Pisa.
There are two trails, each winding like a figure eight on both sides of the road. On the south side, you’ll find the Douglas Firs that stand sentinel in the forest. On the northern side, you’ll find the ancient cedar groves. Both trails are not very long and are easy to walk, so take your time and hike both.
Drive to Tofino
As you drive from Nanaimo to Tofino, you’ll pass a few interesting places. Like the hole in the wall, a natural attraction outside of Port Alberni. This short trail, only 700 metres off the highway leads you to a human-made hole in the rock that was taken back by nature, becoming a waterfall.
Continuing along the Pacific Rim Highway, you’ll pass Taylor Arm Provincial Park, Sutton Pass Ecological Reserve, Clayoquot Plateau Provincial Park and Kennedy Lake Provincial Park before coming to the fork in the road that will take you to either Tofino or Ucluelet.
Another stop on the Vancouver Island Road trip that you have to make is at Wally Creek. This pull-off from the highway. With crystal clear water, it’s a cool spot for swimming in the summer. Plus, there’s also a love lock fence that’s fun to peruse.
Fair warning, the Pacific Rim Highway is not for the faint of heart. After clearing Sproat Lake, the rest of the journey follows the twists and turns of the Kennedy River valley for 42 kilometres. And while the scenery is gorgeous, you need to keep your eyes on the road to watch for falling rocks, tight turns and sections of the mountains that jut over the highway.
RELATED: Visit wild Tofino, British Columbia
Where to stay in Tofino/Ucluelet
Once you make it to the fork in the road, you can decide which way you’d like to go. I stayed at Wya Point Resort, an Indigenous-owned (Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ) resort with cabins, yurts and campgrounds.
Falling asleep in the dark, with the stars above me, listening to the sound of the waves beat against the rocky beach was one hell of an experience.
Wya Point Resort is located just south of the fork – also known as The Junction. Each yurt has a perfect view of the beach and the Pacific Ocean both inside and out on the private deck. Yurts come equipped with a comfortable bed, bedding, a kitchenette (really just a wash station and dishes), a gas fireplace, and a small generator to run the lights. There are no washroom facilities in the yurt, but a common facility with bathrooms and showers is nearby.
I was unbelievably impressed with Wya Resort. I still dream about how quiet the night was, except for the sound of the ocean with that feeling of being in the middle of nowhere and at peace.
I stayed at Wya Resort for the duration of my stay in the Tofino area. I used it as my jumping-off point for all the other adventures!
Looking to book a stay in Tofino/Ucluelet, use this handy map to find the perfect place:
Day two of a Vancouver Island Road trip consists of exploring the gorgeous and wild Pacific Rim National Park. Watch the surfers rip on the constant waves, walk along the shore on the lookout for wild animals and hike into the depths of Canada’s Rainforest.
Explore Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
At Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, you feel like you’re at the edge of the world. Quite literally, you are on the western coast of Vancouver Island with nothing but ocean in front of you.
British Columbia’s Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, one of 47 parks in Canada, is one of the best places to explore Canada’s Temperate Rainforest. It protects over 500 square kilometres of forest, beach and ocean on Vancouver Island. With activities like hiking and surfing, it is an excellent place for adventure seekers.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve encompasses three units of Vancouver Island’s western coast – Long Beach, Broken Islands and West Coast Trail.
The most popular and most easily accessible unit is Long Beach. Spanning from Tofino to Ucluelet, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve features beaches, trails and forest.
While you explore the park, make sure to stop at the Visitor Centre at The Junction and the Kwisitis Visitor Centre.
Beach hop at Pacific Rim National Park
The Long Beach unit actually encompasses several beaches along the coastline, from Halfmoon Bay in the south to Florencia Bay, South Beach, Lismer Beach, Wickaninnish Beach, Combers Beach, Long Beach.
Take your pick. Enjoy the surfers play in the waves, look for starfish and other underwater creatures in the tide pools, spot eagles flying gracefully overhead as the wind whips around you.
Hit both loops of the Rainforest Trail
There are a ton of hiking options in Pacific Rim National Park. From the very short, 200m trail at Radar Hill that leads you to the Kap’Yong Memorial to the multi-day challenging 75km West Coast Trail.
But you can’t leave Vancouver Island without walking through the Rainforest! The Rainforest Trail in Pacific Rim National Park takes you through the temperate Rainforest that makes BC so unique. The trail consists of two 2km loops on either side of the highway.
Each loop takes you through moss-covered boardwalks, up and downstairs, over and under giant trees. It is absolutely breathtaking, and a moment of reflection will reveal how small we are in the world.
Visit Outside Break
Developed close to Chesterman Beach, Outside Break is a surfer’s village complete with shops, food kiosks, and a grocery store. You’ll definitely need to make Outside Break one of your stops on a Vancouver Island road trip. Here you’ll find cute shops like Chocolate Tofino, Groovy Movies and Bike Rentals, Sol Maya Glass Blower, and many more.
This is where Live to Surf, the original Tofino surf shop, started back in the 80s. Make sure to check out Tacofino Cantina – the original Tacofino, which sparked a delicious taco movement into Vancouver. If you’re not full of tacos, then also get some fish and chips at Wildside Grill. Honestly, the best goddamn fish and chips I have ever tasted in my life.
Surfing in the Pacific Ocean requires a full-body wetsuit, boots and gloves. It’s freezing, even in summer. But how exhilarating! Day three of a Vancouver Island road trip lets you ride the waves, explore the gorgeous surfer town of Tofino and, if you have time, head out to the hot springs deep in the island’s archipelago.
One of the most amazing adventures I had on my Vancouver Island road trip was a beginner surfing lesson I had in Tofino. I had never surfed before, so why not throw myself into the rough, cold waters of the Pacific Ocean in Tofino?
The ocean here is not one to mess around with. Sure, you can rent your equipment and go by yourself, but if you’re inexperienced, that’s just a dumb idea.
I’m not going to lie, all morning I was a ball of nerves. There was a high wind warning for the area, making the waves extra powerful, but everyone at the surf shop was chill about it, so I let myself relax.
There are so many surf shops in Tofino that you can have your pick with which one will fit you best. After researching thoroughly, I chose Surf Sister for my first time surfing adventure.
Not only do I love their model for teaching, but I connected with the owner’s story. She wanted to have a shop that helped female surfers make their mark in Tofino. And get this – she succeeded. Surf Sister is a popular shop in Tofino, and their instructors are absolutely incredible and specialize in making a comfortable environment for beginners.
After surfing, you’ll want to explore Tofino. I see why people love it here. Tofino is a small coastal town at the western edge of Vancouver Island. It’s surrounded by water on three sides, meaning there’s only one way in and out of town. It’s a small town with delicious eats and cool cafes, but what I enjoyed most about Tofino is the adventurous culture that helped it become a top destination for travellers.
While you’re in town, make sure to check out Tofino Coffee Roasting Co. and Rhino Coffee House for your morning cup of coffee. For meals, try the Wolf in the Fog, Sea Monster Noodle Bar or Ice House Oyster Bar for a place to dig in. And for shopping, be sure to stop into Caravan Beach Shop and Mermaid Tales Bookshop for unique souvenirs.
You’ll also want to check out Chesterman Beach, the beach of choice for many visitors of Tofino!
Check out Tonquin Park
If you’re up for a short hike through the forest, then check out the Tonquin Park trail, which leads you through old-growth forest and beautiful view of the surrounding landscape to Tonquin Beach, Third Beach and Middle Beach. While the trek to the Tonquin Beach is only 800 metres, the whole loop is 3km of boardwalk and gravel trail
Hit up the Hot Springs Cove
If you’d rather go hiking in a remote place that ends in a hot spring than throwing yourself into the waves of the Pacific Ocean, then you won’t want to miss going to Hot Springs Cove in Maquinna Provincial Park.
The island is only accessible by a 1-1.5 hour boat ride from Tofino. Once you get off on the dock, the Hot Springs Cove is located at the end of a 2km boardwalk hike (that includes quite a few stairs).
Once there, you’re on a remote island. There’s no freshwater (bring your own), and you’ll want to bring a dry bag since it’s often very wet there. Lastly, enjoy the boat ride; you never know what creatures you’ll spot on your journey.
On day four of a Vancouver Island road trip, it’s time to say goodbye to Tofino and make your way to Victoria, British Columbia’s capital city. Here’s where you can hop on a boat and explore the seas surrounding the island in search of whales!
Drive to Victoria
It’s time to say goodbye to Tofino and hello to British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria. Victoria is a gorgeous city, aptly named the Garden City, and is an excellent stop for a Vancouver Island road trip.
The trek to Victoria from Tofino takes just over four hours since you have to drive all the way back to Nanaimo before heading south. There are many places you could stop along the way, but I suggest straight-shooting it all the way there to give yourself as much time in Victoria as you can.
Afternoon Whale Watching
Once you arrive in Victoria, head straight to Fisherman’s Wharf for some whale watching. If you get to Fisherman’s wharf early, wander around and check out the colourful floating houses and grab a bite to eat at Barb’s Fish and Chips.
If you don’t go whale watching on your Vancouver Island road trip, then why did you come here?! (Joking, obviously.) But, seriously, why pass up an opportunity to see whales in the wild in one of the most populous whale areas?
There’s nothing like the thrill of the silence, with the boat engines cut, waiting for a glimpse of the majestic Orca. Then suddenly, they’re there, in front of you! Seeing these beautiful marine mammals in the wild is an incredible experience.
There are many whale watching tour operators in Victoria and Vancouver. Still, I chose Eagle Wing Whale and Wildlife Watching Tours due to their commitment to the environment and strict whale interaction procedures.
Whale watching tours are fantastic. Not only will you likely see orcas, since there are quite a few in the area, but you may also get a chance to see blue whales, humpbacks whales, seals, sea lions, and more.
RELATED: Whale watching in Victoria, BC
Where to stay in Victoria
Like many cities, Victoria has so many options for hotels, B&Bs, hostels and more. On my trip, I decided to stay as cheaply as possible, taking a bed at Hostel International in the city, especially since I splurged for the yurt at Wya Point. Victoria’s Hostel International was quite lovely, with decent facilities for a hostel, but I wasn’t there much other than to sleep.
Like I said there are so many options, just look at this map:
Day five of a Vancouver Island road trip is your final day, explore Victoria, grabbing a bite to eat at one of its excellent restaurants, and stop at the Butchart Gardens before heading back to the mainland.
It’s your last day on the Vancouver Island road trip, so make sure to check out some awesome spots in Victoria. I find that Victoria is more charming than the metropolis of Vancouver. Not only does Victoria have more beautiful architecture, but it still has this small city vibe to it, which the giant city of Vancouver does not.
One of the places you have to see in Victoria includes the Fairmont Empress, one of the oldest hotels in Canada. Even if you don’t stay here, be sure to peek inside or make a reservation for its world-renowned high tea.
(If you don’t want to pay that much for high tea, check out Venus Sophia Tea Room. They have amazing scones and an impressive selection of tea at a much more reasonable price.)
You also won’t want to miss taking in the BC Legislature building, which in my opinion, is the most beautiful in Canada. The sprawling gardens are dotted with statues and totem poles. See if you can find the statue of Queen Victoria, for whom the city was named.
Chinatown needs to be on your list too. Chinese immigrants have a long, rich and, many times, heartbreaking relationship to the growth of Victoria, BC. The district stands out with its red and gold colours and unique architecture. Take a look at the several shops and restaurants, but make sure to stop by the Gate of Harmonious Interest, the infamous Fan Tan Alley, and the lesser-known Dragon Alley.
Lastly, the trendy fashion district of Market Square and open pedestrian shopping district of Bastion Square are two stops you have to make before leaving Victoria.
Outside the downtown, try to make at least one stop at either the breakwater (a one-kilometre trail jutting out into the bay), Beacon Hill Park (a 200-acre park home to the fourth-tallest totem pole), Craigdarroch Castle (a Scottish-style castle known for its intricate stained glass windows), or Emily Carr House (once home to one of Canada’s most famous painters).
Visit Butchart Gardens
Your last stop on a Vancouver Island Road Trip should be the Butchart Gardens. The Gardens, located about 30 minutes north of Victoria, is a National Historic Site of Canada. For over 100 years, these gardens are a treat to the eyes with a wide range of flowers and plants.
Depart for Vancouver at Swartz Bay
Swartz Bay, where you’ll catch a ferry to the mainland, is only 30 minutes from Victoria. So, depending on your departure, you might have time to check out a few more places along the way.
There’s Cattle Point Dark Sky Urban Star Park, or the scenic views of Mount Douglas, the waterfront forest of Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, forested hiking at ȽÁU,WELṈEW̱/John Dean Provincial Park, or check out the small port city of Sydney, BC.
There really is so much to see on the island. This five day Vancouver Island road trip only stops at the highlights, so if you live close or want to explore more, please do, there’s nowhere else in the world quite like Vancouver Island.